The Bloomsday Race is one of Spokane, Washington’s biggest events of the year. This year was no different, as thousands participated, even with new security measures in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing last month. The event went off with no problems. Well, except for one minor issue: Anti-choice activists brought giant graphic posters to the route as a means of protesting abortion.
Officials admit that they have no recourse, which is exactly what the protesters wanted. Some people got angry. Others yelled. Many more complained that their children couldn’t avoid the pictures. “The images where [sic] horrific and disturbing. No need for that type of protest during a family event,” wrote one person on a Facebook page for the event, according to the Spokesman Review.
Public protest of abortion using graphic material has been a staple of the anti-choice movement since the early ’80s, when activist Joe Scheidler advocated it as a means to engage in protest and “sidewalk counseling” in his handbook Closed: 99 Ways to Stop Abortion. From fliers with graphic pictures that were handed out at public events and marches to larger photos outside of clinics where women would be terminating pregnancies, Scheidler was an enthusiastic advocate for the power of a gruesome image, although he did recommend that the ones at clinics be positioned away from the person doing the actual “counseling” of women prior to their entrance into the clinic in order to not scare them. He also encouraged the use of such photos at pro-choice events or when picketing the homes, private offices, clubs, and places of worship frequented by providers.
Much as anti-choice protesters still use many of the exact same photos as they did in the ’80s, they use many of those same 99 Ways tactics to protest on the streets. Scheidler’s son has continued using those tactics to oppose a Planned Parenthood fundraiser, making viewing abortion photos the price of attendance, and the director of the National Pro-Life Congress did the same for an NAACP awards dinner in Michigan. One anti-abortion extremist in Ohio made viewing his bloody display a prerequisite for voting early at a mostly liberal polling place.
Still, for the most part the target remained adults, and adults in places where anti-choice advocates assume the majority would support abortion rights. That is beginning to change as more protesters are seeking to give the photos wider distribution, and directly affect those under the age of 18. High schools are becoming a favorite protesting place of late, with one “truth truck” driver stating that the giant photos of “dismembered fetuses” displayed on the side of his truck are the only way to get the message across. “They have to see it, not just hear about it,” protester Pablo Flores told the Imperial Valley Press. “It wakes up the people.”
The message implied is clear: If you want these pictures to go away, ban safe abortion. Until you do exactly what they say, they will continue to bring their protests everywhere people gather. Especially family events involving children.
Is it emotional blackmail? Of course. Those who support it say “sometimes the truth is graphic,” as their signs were representative of the realities of abortion. But they hardly represent reality. The majority of abortions in the United States—more than 90 percent—take place in the first trimester and the vast majority of those at the embryonic stage. Whatever the doctored photos being used for “public display,” they all have been magnified to ensure they are as gruesome as possible. “Truth” in most cases would be up to two inches long, but that wouldn’t be nearly as visible (or grisly) on a 6′x10′ placard.
That all body parts and bodily functions tend to have a “yuck” factor (especially when a zoom lens is involved) shouldn’t be lost on the anti-choice contingent. After all, these are the same people who feel that teenagers need to be protected from seeing a demonstration of condom use because it is “too explicit.” If sex ed should be handled by parents, not states, then why is the new front line of abortion protesting the direct targeting of youth with graphic pictures, explicitly rejecting a parent’s right to decide what is or isn’t appropriate for young children?
To anti-choice activists, the answer is simple. The ends justify the means. Just ask Professor Eugene Volokh, who is defending such a case of graphic anti-choice posters being used in a protest at a church in Colorado. Volokh argues that the case is a simple one based on First Amendment rights and freedom of speech, which should always supersede any potential harm that could be brought to young children who are forced to view said “speech.” If there was any doubt that his own personal views might be clouding the issue a bit, however, it should be noted that according to the New York Times Volokh said these images are providing “valuable information to young people.” He stated that “vivid images are ‘very often the most effective way of conveying a moral truth’ and that ‘the gruesomeness of the image reflects the gruesomeness of the act.’” Obviously, in this case, “truth” is in the eye of the lawyer.
The belief that forcing the “truth” via graphic images is worth the cost isn’t just one held by the fringe of the anti-abortion movement, but is surfacing now more among the groups once believed to be the more moderate, public faces of “pro-life.” A recent example is the Susan B. Anthony List’s incessant exploitation of the Kermit Gosnell trial as a means to attempt to garner public support for new restrictions in abortion care. The SBA List was allegedly criticized by members of the GOP for promoting the mini-documentary 3801 Lancaster, a 20-minute film about the illegal clinic operated by the Philadelphia doctor charged with murder, due to its graphic content. Justifying her group’s decision to embrace the “horror” side of abortion, Dannenfesler explained that at a certain point you simply have to make people uncomfortable if that’s what it takes to get the point across.
“I had to really search my own conscience because we generally don’t put a horror picture, we usually show the beauty of the unborn child,” President Marjorie Dannenfelser told Newsbusters, a conservative website. “At some point in time, it became appropriate for the rest of the country, beyond just the activists to actually see what we’re talking about, to see the visual argument…[T]here just comes a point in movements where it would be malpractice to not give the visual argument when it gets to such a point as we are right now.”
Dannenfesler was speaking about showing the documentary to legislators, not young children, but her words aren’t much different from those who pose graphic placards at schools, in public intersections, or even large public events geared towards children. Monica Migliorino Miller, a Michigan anti-choice activist and the woman who took many of the photos currently being used in protests, said this when it came to the issue of children seeing the graphic images:
This crisis requires that the truth be publicly exposed — and the magnitude of the injustice that we face overrides the possibility that children will see the pictures. It simply makes no sense to forego the public exposure of our national slaughter that has sent tens of millions of children to their deaths for the sake of sparing children who might see the photos and who might be affected by them. The horrific injustice of abortion and our nation’s continued support for it requires that the photos be shown — despite the possibility of children seeing the disturbing images…[T]o impose as requirements that children will never see the photos or that they will never be upset by them are simply unjustified demands in light of the need to reveal the truth about abortion in order to bring this injustice to an end.
Even if the entirety of the anti-choice movement isn’t ready to move into a full frontal visual assault yet, enough of them are willing to do so to make any potential outing a protest, and more abortion opponents are coming to their side. Want to feel safe taking a child outside without concern that you’ll have to explain what the giant bloody baby skull across the street is all about? It’s simple; just do what they say and ban abortion.
Otherwise, you have no one to blame but yourself.